This article originally appeared in Model D.

From their home base on the second floor of the Commerce and Finance Building at University of Detroit Mercy, 33 sixth- to eighth-grade girls are learning the ins and outs of college life, exploring careers that might match their interests and personality, and seeing firsthand what real success and happiness looks like for educated women who have fulfilling, well-paying careers.

These young girls are part of Mercy Education Project’s Emerging Leaders program, a four-week program that runs for the entire month of July, helping girls who live in southwest Detroit learn about college and careers.

"Most of the girls in our program do not know people who have gone to college," says Melanie Ward, director of the Girls' Programs at Mercy Education Project and coordinator of Emerging Leaders.

She says that most of the girls have a lack of knowledge about college, how it can benefit them and what to expect. But after spending weeks on a college campus and visiting other campuses around the region, the fears quickly melt, and they become more knowledgeable about the choices they have.

"We visited a lot of colleges," says Analisa Alvarez, 15, who attended the program last year. "It gave me a view that you can either go to a small college or to one that’s really big with a lot of people. It made me think about what kind of environment do I really want to be in. Do I want to be in small classrooms like I am today in high school or do I want to go to 200 or 400 student study halls?"

Before she attended the program, both she and her mother, Monica Alvarez, were mostly familiar with well-known state schools, like Michigan State University and University of Michigan. It was beneficial to them both to learn about other options, including Schoolcraft College, Eastern Michigan University, University of Detroit Mercy, and Oakland University.

"One of the first obstacles they have to overcome is ignorance; they have to learn what college is, how it can benefit them, what colleges exist, what a dorm is, what a commuter school is, etc.," says Ward. "Until the girls know some of the basics about college, they have no reason to be motivated to go to college."

Ward, who has a middle school and high school teaching background and a master’s degree in educational leadership, manages the program with the help of four group leaders, who are all college graduates. Three of them grew up in Detroit, giving them a common connector to the girls in the program.

Monica Alvarez says that she appreciates the intimate nature of the program and the individual attention that Analisa received and that her 12-year-old daughter Alonda, who is currently in the program, also likes.

"The ratio of girls to help is so small, maybe 6 to 8 girls to one adult, so they get a lot of hands on, a lot of caring experience," says Alvarez. "The people there are so caring and they’re so positive. They boost them up on everything. Even the lady that feeds them -- she has them try all kinds of food."

Much of what the girls glean from the Emerging Leaders program is exposure to different paths in life. Monica Alvarez says that the group leaders lend their experiences to help the girls become more focused.

"Here we are in southwest Detroit, and you know your neighborhood and you know your people," says Alvarez. "But they (Mercy Education Project) branch them out to other places. Most kids don’t go on a regular basis two or three times a week an hour away from home.”

The outings Alvarez is referring to are field trips to visit other college campuses and to witness first hand the size, look and feel of colleges, both large and small, private and public. Says Alalisa Alvarez, "It made me think to myself, which one could I study more in or focus more at? Or which one could I get more out of? The big ones are kind of scary, but I think it would be okay."

Leadership training, career exploration and goal setting are also part of the program. When Analisa Alvarez was there, she set goals for herself that are still posted on her bedroom wall. "My main goal is to finish college and to maintain good grades. I have all 4.0s and I’m going to keep maintaining 4.0s until I finish high school, hopefully. And another goal was to explore different places before I start college -- to travel more."

Ward says that the girls set specific and measurable goals for middle school, high school, and college. They identify a career interest and understand how their academic work plays a role in making their dreams become a reality. Girls have set goals around GPAs, ACT scores, staying on honor roll, or landing scholarships -- an ambitious lot for middle school girls, who might normally be focused on boys, clothes or friendships at their age.

Role modeling opportunities abound in the program as well, and Ward works to expose the girls to successful women. This year, they are having a Career Day, where professionals from a variety of careers will be coming to the program; the girls will interview them in a speed-dating format.

Analisa Alvarez remembers meeting women at various workplaces, including the mayor of Southgate and someone in a leadership position at DTE Energy. They shared with the girls how they became successful. "A lot of the role models for me were the women. Sometimes you look and always see that there is always a good guy and the guys are the biggest ones. But then there are all these women who are really high up. It made me feel like women can do this."

Highlights to this year’s program include meeting at least 20 metro Detroit women role models (in conjunction with Mercy Education Project’s 20-year anniversary); completing a True Colors personality assessment; serving the community through a Kids Against Hunger event; participating in a project with the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History involving STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math); and partaking in fun activities, like swimming, bowling or roller skating.

Ward says that she has learned, from the previous three years of programming, that she can’t make the schedule too academic during the summer when kids are looking for a break from school. "Middle school girls love art projects and talking so we try to incorporate more of that into the program," she says. "The staff uses a variety of resources, including ideas from youth conferences and teambuilding books, and their own experiences, as middle schoolers or with our middle schoolers, to plan interactive engaging activities."

So, in addition to all the new experiences and intensive learning that goes on around the serious topics of leadership, higher education and careers, the girls also have a fun and make new friends.

Monica Alvarez says that Alonda, who is in the program this year, was initially hesitant to go, but now that she’s in it, she thinks it’s great. She comes home every evening bubbling, sharing and excited about what she’s learned. Now, she can hardly wait to get out the door.

"She’s right up at the crack of dawn and sitting on the front porch by 7:30 a.m. waiting for the bus to come." (Door-to-door transportation and meals are provided as part of the free program.) She also likes how the program forges independence.
"My four girls are always together. So I like the fact that Ana went by herself last year, and she’s a middle kid, and Alonda went by herself this year," says Alvarez. "It helps them become more independent and able to make it by themselves."

Interested in supporting the Emerging Leaders program? The program needs nonperishable snacks and juice boxes, art supplies (especially poster board, construction paper, stickers, and glue) and school supplies (pencils, pens, paper, computer paper). Melonie Ward says that she is always looking for new businesses to visit (for future years), new guest speakers (especially for Career Day), and financial sponsors for the program for field trips and meals. Call 313-963-5881 or email mward@mercyed.net to help.

Melinda Clynes is a regular contributor to Model D and statewide project editor for a series of stories that address children at risk. She'll be digging from Detroit to Marquette looking for people changing that narrative.

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People and organizations making a difference in Detroit:
Student Mentor Partners
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Student Mentor Partners makes private school accessible for at-risk youth in the Detroit area. The group supports more than 35 boys and girls in 11 private high schools and is dedicated to helping "the academically average or marginal student who, without proper guidance and support, may 'fall through the cracks,' become frustrated with school, and eventually drop out."

Read more about Student Mentor Partners here.